What if I told you that Obama’s education-policy reforms, arguably pushed through without the good graces of the law, were crippling children’s imaginations, stifling their creativity, and on the whole setting them up to become less moral, kind, empathetic people? It’s a strong statement, but one moored in fact. The president’s push for states to accept new curriculum standards should give chills to anyone who believes in the importance of the liberal arts. If you think it’s good for kids to read stories, these changes will probably disturb you.
They sound benign enough. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created Common Core State Standards, whose rationale seems to be that, given the state of the economy, American students should learn skills that will make them more competitive in tightening job markets. Since reading stories doesn’t do that, students should spend less time studying literature and more time learning how to analyze “informational texts.” On paper, the new standards are purely voluntary — schools choose to opt in only if they want — but Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation tells National Review Online that it’s not that simple.
“What we saw from the very beginning was alignment with the Obama administration,” Burke says, adding that the White House pushed hard for states to adopt the new standards. To cash-strapped states, Race to the Top dangled $4.35 billion — theirs if they accepted the new curriculum standards and met several other conditions. And now states face even more pressure from the White House. Burke explains that, in effect, the Obama administration has made a state’s acceptance of the new standards the precondition for waivers from No Child Left Behind, which requires that every child be proficient in math and reading by 2014. That’s not going to happen, so some states have adopted the new curriculum standards to help protect themselves from the possibility of future sanctions — in other words, to keep from being punished for failing to attain the unattainable. It’s not unfair to characterize the White House’s education-reform strategy as coercive.
What does all of this actually portend? National standards for curricula can be only so bad, right? Wrong. The new standards change how public schools teach reading, requiring that 50 percent of the texts read in grades K through 5 be informational. By twelfth grade, that figure rises to 70 percent. The Common Core State Standards look to balance literary reading with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history, the social sciences, natural sciences, and technical subjects, according to a document from the standards’ creators. (Stanley Kurtz has explained how this could enable the federal government to use classrooms to proselytize students to adopt its political goals.)
It’s unclear what literary texts will have to be sacrificed. The Telegraph has speculated that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye could be on the chopping block. The standards suggest that schools give to the eager young minds of tomorrow such texts as Invasive Plant Inventory, from the California Invasive Plant Council; FedViews, from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Google Hacks: Tips & Tools for Smarter Searching, 2nd edition, by Tara Calishain and Rael Dornest; “Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control,” by Mark Fischetti; and the EPA and DOE’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” (fun!).
The prospect of students’ missing out on classic literature so they can read about how to use Google and insulate their homes is funny in an Orwellian way — and that’s a reference students may be increasingly unlikely to recognize if the White House successfully pushes through its education agenda.
The greater problem here is the premise behind the change: that students read so they can learn how to process information and eventually get jobs as information processors. If that’s why kids go to school, then we should have stopped wasting time on pishposh like The Catcher in the Rye decades ago. Washington education bureaucrats must be puzzled about how the West survived at all when its education principles weren’t narrowly focused on career optimization. Why didn’t the Irish monks illuminate manuscripts on how to properly rotate pastures? Can we really consider Erasmus educated when he didn’t have access to “Recommended Levels of Insulation”? Could it be possible that students didn’t always go to school just to learn how to make money?
I was an English major at Hillsdale College, a liberal-arts school in Michigan, and figured the best way to find answers to these questions was to call up a few of my favorite professors and see what they thought about all this — particularly about the shifting focus of the American K–12 education system. True, English professors might be a little biased when it comes to the importance of literature, but they’re also well equipped to defend its role in society. And I missed talking to them.
First, there’s Professor Dutton Kearney, who knows quite a bit about data processing, since after getting an undergrad English degree he went into the glamorous world of medical billing, where he worked for a disability-insurance company and wrote a lot of executive summaries of data. That may not have been the most fun job ever, as he went back to school so he could become an English professor. If you’re ever in south-central Michigan and hankering to have a conversation about Ezra Pound, look him up.
“There’s truth in a circuit board, but it’s not the same kind of truth,” he says, pointing out that Eliot’s and Kirk’s concern for the permanent things, and Faulkner’s interest in the Old Verities, are probably absent from texts on electronics. “You can’t think about honor or justice or love or anything like that.”
He added that healthy imaginations might serve us better in times of economic woe than do talents for data processing. Economic difficulties demand innovation, he offers, “and it seems to me that you get innovation through a properly formed imagination, and literature forms the imagination.”
Nothing pushes the horizons of the human imagination like Dante’s Commedia, which Professor Stephen Smith teaches at Hillsdale. Before getting his master’s, he taught high-school English at a boys’ school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and then at a girls’ school in the Bronx. He chuckles about the prospect of expecting high-school students to read “informational texts.” “There must be some Homer of the instruction manual out there!” he says. “We’re just not aware of it yet!”
When he taught high school, he found explaining the importance of fiction and poetry to be one of his greatest challenges. He offers the following defense of teaching lit to high-schoolers: “To experience great works that move you through their beauty to wonder and reason — this has always been in our tradition the beginning of serious reflection on the human person, on the best way to live, on those serious questions that sooner or later all of us must confront, and that the young really want answers to now.”
Reading great literature helps students start to know themselves so they can begin “a life of reflection, a life wide awake,” Smith says. “Socrates said most folks sleepwalk through existence, and these books have a tremendous awakening power.” It’s safe to say that reading FedViews doesn’t.
Finally, Professor John Somerville, who wrote his dissertation on Flannery O’Connor and is about to teach a class on Cormac McCarthy, points out that great literature forms community, especially given that literature seems to have its roots in religious contexts. Religious stories held cultures together in ways that data points never could, as early bards, storytellers, and religious leaders gathered communities to share their narratives. “I’m certain those people would not have sat around and had someone come in and give them a lecture on invasive plant species or factory guidelines, or whatever it might be,” Somerville remarks.
Somerville directed me to Marilynne Robinson’s comments on the subject. In an essay in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, she writes:
I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.
In other words, reading great literature can help students cultivate their emotions and capacity for empathy. It’s hard to write this without sounding sentimental, but stories bring us together and keep us together. Factoids do not.
David Foster Wallace got at the same idea in a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery. “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible,” he said. “But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”
Schools don’t exist as job-training camps. They exist to educate students. To be truly educated, students need to graduate with more imagination, not less. They need to face questions about what it means to be a human being — they need to stop sleepwalking, if they’ve started it already — and they need to start learning how to love strangers. We all know that becoming properly educated is a lifelong endeavor. But Washington gives students a huge disadvantage if it leads them to think that memorizing data and processing facts is 70 percent of living well.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.